Feeding refugees

We got a fund solicitation recently from the regional food depository. We have contributed before but, ironically, we are now occasionally on the receiving end of charitable food boxes. That’s because we’re housing and feeding three asylum seekers, whom we call our kids. The donated food is for them, but this morning my breakfast came from food box items they don’t eat. I have sent notification not to put certain things in the boxes. For a while, the kids were taking the boxes to their rooms but leaving things uneaten. They finally brought tons of stuff down to the kitchen, asking what they should do with it.

Our three eat twice a day and only Jeb, the 22-year-old, snacks much. Brunch is bread-plus-omelets or leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner of meat/vegetable stew and rice or posho, the polenta-like staple that figures prominently in African cuisine. Sometimes potatoes are the staple but more often they are a stew ingredient.

The kids are reluctant to try food they don’t understand. They don’t understand beef stew in a foil package, canned mixed vegetables, biscotti, macaroni and cheese, little containers of ready-to-eat apples and oats, flavored crackers. What is this? they say. I say, try it. They try it and may say, oh, it’s good. But that doesn’t mean they will snack on such things or work them into their brunches and dinners. They are familiar with breakfast cereal but it reminds them of their long stay in detention.

They don’t understand putting things together or modifying them to make them palatable. Yesterday I made a palatable thick soup by combining that foil beef stew with a can of mixed vegetables and adding herbs, cayenne, and a dash of vinegar. Vic and I ate it. Sandra tasted it and said it was good. But they don’t understand making soup, though Sandra says she would like to learn. For them, soup alone does not constitute a meal, no matter how hearty you make it.

I understand the reluctance to improvise. African food supplies are limited to fewer, mostly fresh ingredients, and African dishes are perfected over generations to suit traditional tastes. I improvise because I have access to a great variety of ingredients, which change with the season. There are no real seasons in African food production except, say, mango season or caterpillar season.

They do not like cheese. They do not like much chocolate. They are not big on sweets at all, though ice cream has become popular and Jeb will go through a box of Oreos pretty quickly.

They understand bread, eggs, milk, tea (Ben and Jeb make themselves a hot drink of milk, tea, and ginger; Sandra prefers herbal tea and honey). They understand meat, fruit, rice (but not instant rice), potatoes, dried beans. They understand dried or canned fish. They understand peanuts and peanut butter and require lots of it. They understand onions and garlic. They understand fresh vegetables, not frozen or canned. They require fresh tomatoes for stews, for example, though I can’t tell any real difference if you use canned. They use prodigious amounts of fresh ginger. Cilantro doesn’t rot in the fridge like it does when I buy it for myself. They are expert preparers of fresh greens like kale and chard. They are expert choppers and dicers. Hot sauce is a staple.

Last week we bought a 25-pound bag of white rice and a 25-pound bag of the kind of cornmeal that works best for making posho. These are going down fast. We also bought a 10-pound bag of brown rice because they understand it is more nutritious, and that Vic and I strongly prefer it when we eat rice, which is every now and then and in small quantities, but when they are cooking for themselves alone they always cook white rice–not because it is faster-cooking, however. They are not interested in shortcuts. They will spend hours chopping everything to the required degree of uniform fineness. They cook together when they can.

I make a cabbage slaw they enjoy, with carrots, cilantro, lemon juice, cayenne, but they never make salads for themselves. They will eat prepared foods like breaded fish if I serve them but they don’t often make them for themselves. They are oven-shy. Baked potatoes, a new thing they enjoy, usually get made in the microwave.

I have introduced them to certain things that are big hits. This fall we have consumed nearly a bushel and a half of local apples, so far. I regularly use my juicer to make juice with watermelon or cider, beets, ginger, and lemon. It is very popular. They consider beets and okra health foods. Jeb often reminds me that he really likes my arroz con pollo. I fill my biggest pot with a whole chicken, four cups of (raw) rice, three cups of peas, etc. and it doesn’t even last two meals.

I have taught Ben, our original housemate, to make whole-wheat bread, which everyone enjoys. Sandra says she is interested in learning American cooking but she is hard-pressed to name American dishes that she has tasted and would make for herself and her friends. She now makes curry the way I do but it is hardly American. She does not understand cheesy casseroles.

The three are happy cooking for themselves and eating foods that remind them of home. I am happy not to be doing much of the cooking or, usually, only for Vic and me. We are still working on a food budget and how to keep the kitchen stocked. I do want them to learn independence and how much food costs and the best way to do this is for them to buy their own food. But I like grocery shopping—it seems like a relatively safe outing in this pandemic—and they are too busy to reliably accompany me. It also gives me pleasure to see them well fed. Food boxes or not, we have the resources to do that. Am I spoiling them?

On top of that, they keep the kitchen, and the whole house, immaculate. So I wonder, who’s spoiling whom?

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